For the penultimate work in my week-long journey into winter, i’m again turning away from festive music to a piece that continues my preoccupation with the season’s prevailing darkness. Not that the work in question, Éliane Radigue‘s Occam XVII for double bass, has darkness as its theme; her Occam series is primarily associated with water-related imagery (in part literally, the performers being asked to keep images of specific watercourses in mind while playing). But every time i listen to this piece i’m drawn into a soundworld that i think of as a myriad shades of black, having the same kind of inscrutability and, despite first appearances, endlessly shifting surface details (both real and imaginary) of the marvellous black paintings by Ad Reinhardt.
With all of Radigue’s Occam works it’s arguably best just to listen to them rather than read a lot about them – trying to capture something of their inner magic is nigh impossible anyway – so i’ll keep this brief. Occam XVII essentially charts a slow transition from low A to bottom C# on the double bass, but that’s not remotely what the piece is ‘about’ or what’s most interesting about it. The work begins, and is continuously filled, with a plethora of overtones and harmonics ever in flux. Sometimes they suggest the harmonic series, projecting prominent fifths or thirds, but more often they act not as a reinforcement of the fundamental but a kind of challenging colouration of it. Sometimes they shimmer, sometimes they judder, but always they’re in motion, each up- or down-bow seeming either to change entirely or at least subtly alter the agglomeration of pitches magically emerging from the strings. It gives the impression that the instrument is breathing, each inhalation and exhalation a continuation of the same impulse toward deep, dark meditation.
This performance of Occam XVII, by Dominic Lash, took place in September 2017 in the Great Masson Cavern at the Heights of Abraham in Matlock Bath.